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Blog Top Tips On Writing Disabled Characters Throughout History

Top Tips On Writing Disabled Characters Throughout History

By Laura Noakes | Author, Guest Blog, Top Tips, Writing Tips, Book Reviews, Family, Interview

Top Tips On Writing Disabled Characters Throughout History

Laura Noakes, author of 'Cosima Unfortunate Steals a Star' shares some great tips to aspiring authors about how to write disabled characters sensitively but accurately, especially in historical fiction.

My book, Cosima Unfortunate Steals a Star, is set in late-Victorian London and stars Cosima—a girl with an unquenchable zeal for adventure who also happens to be disabled. Cos shares my disability —Hypermobility Spectrum Disorder (HSD) — which means that we have chronic pain and deal with recurrent joint dislocations. HSD is what is known as a dynamic disability which means that it changes day by day —sometimes my disability is completely invisible and I appear ‘normal’, and at other times I use a walking stick and joint supports to get around.

In my book, Cos lives in a Home for Unfortunate Girls — a group home for disabled girls looked after by a matron. These types of institutions were very common during the Victorian Era. The scientific thinking during this time was that disabled and mentally ill people should be neither seen or heard, and some lived their entire lives within four walls. Cos’ best friends are also disabled or mentally ill. Diya is a wheelchair user. Her legs were paralysed as a toddler due to an infection called Polio. This disease is very rare nowadays — thanks to vaccinations — but during the nineteenth century many people died and there was no cure. Mary has what is called ‘hysteria’ in the book, but we would call it anxiety today. Pearl is based on my younger brother, who is autistic.

When I sat down to write, I was wanted to make sure that I was writing disabled characters as truthfully as possible, and the below tips really helped me:

1. Disabled people have always existed.

Sometimes in history books it seems that disability is a modern idea. But like LGBTQ+ people, working class people, and people of colour, disability has been a part of humanity since the beginning of time. However, like a lot of people from marginalised communities, disabled people have often been made invisible throughout history.


As I mentioned in my first tip, many old history books leave out the contributions of disabled people. However, in more recent years there have been some amazing historians who have sought to rewrite disabilities into history (YAY!). Much of the research that I did for Cosima Unfortunate Steals a Star came from the internet — incredible websites and blogs sharing new findings. I started reading very generally — about the treatment of Victorian disabled people in England, and then zeroed in on more specific topics that were relevant for my story, like homes for disabled children.

3. You may come across offensive terms that we don’t use today.

One of the hardest things about writing disabled characters historically is coming across the many hurtful terms and descriptions used about disabled people in the past. Especially as I am disabled — reading those words really stung. Although it hurt it helped me get a better idea of the kind of society that my characters were living in. However, I would caution against using these slur words in your writing — especially if you aren’t disabled yourself.

 You can purchase a copy of Cosima Unfortunate Steals a Star here!

Published: Fri 26th May 2023

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